In 1686, “Cafe Procope” was a meeting place for intellectual “literary-type” men. Women were not welcome in this famed bastion where the first gelato in France was served. During the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire, and politicians like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, gathered at Cafe Procope to enjoy gentlemanly coffee, chocolates and gelato.
The cafe still exists in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris, although sorbets have replaced the gelato and women are more than welcomed. What’s important is how the restaurant owner, Sicilian born Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, was an influential man and friend of Florentine Bernardo Buontalenti. Buontalenti is generally believed to be the inventor of gelato who introduced it to the court of Catherine dei Medici (pictured below) back in the 15th century.
Buontalenti was a talented architect, artist and inventor who wanted to please Catherine, a member of the powerful Italian Medici family. Catherine’s fascinating story will have to wait for another day, but I like to think of Catherine as Buontalenti’s “gelato muse” and the reason gelato was even invented; this is also a happy thought knowing Catherine was held hostage in a convent as a young girl before Pope Clement VII rescued her and married her off to the King of France.
Florence is the birthplace of gelato, which is actually the Italian name for ice cream. Gelato is different from traditional ice cream although both recipes contain three main ingredients – cream, milk and sugar. Ice cream has a higher content of cream than gelato and therefore more fat, and is whipped at higher speeds to puff more air into the mixture. This “overrun” process, as it’s called, often relies on the addition of egg yolks to help the ice cream gel versus gelato, which is less sculptured and more dense in texture.
I think I was born eating ice cream and I converted to gelato as an adult. Until recently, I had no idea this cold treat was centuries old. Asian and Egyptian cultures enjoyed fruit-flavored ice chunks 3,000 years ago, and Arabs, Greeks and Roman cultures served variations of these as after-dinner desserts. When I discovered gelato, I was hooked. My female friends sung its praises as a slimmer option to ice cream, but for me it was the artisanal marriage of “perfecto” flavors and silky, unparalleled texture.
My idea for writing about five days of gelato in five cities materialized one frightful night when my husband and I had just started our vacation. We were returning to our hotel in Rome after dinner when our taxi was broadsided by a car. The gelato idea was born in the back of my dramatic ambulatory ride to Santo Spirito hospital (translated as the Hospital of the Holy Spirit).
Maybe I was in shock or perhaps it was divine inspiration, but the searing pain in my head from the taxi crash reminded me of a prolonged brain freeze. You know, the kind you get from eating ice cream too fast. As I bumped up and down on the cobbled streets enroute to the hospital, rolling side to side like a flapjack while strapped to a gurney, I had two thoughts: how could I get a refund on the expensive Colosseum tour I had booked the next day, and I should never take life for granted. I pledged I would never forget to wear my seatbelt and to live each day better, starting with a daily dose of gelato while on holiday. I would walk through the ages of five amazing Italian cities – Rome, Florence, San Gimignano, Siena and Venice – and couple my journey with the joyful search for the healing flavors of gelato in each of these cities.
I began my healing journey (like the Florentine art work pictured above) in Rome, at the famed Venchi Gelateria and Chocolate shop. A fitting start – as Rome is the capital of Italy and storied home of the gladiators. Venchi is the “colosseum” of gelato makers as one of the world’s largest gelateria chains. It has a thriving business in many countries around the world, including North and South America, the Middle East and Europe.
While there is certainly nothing violent about gelato, chocolate or the Venchi store, the display counters and quality of their offerings are gladiator-like spectacles fit for royalty and the masses. It’s a place you could come to die in. There isn’t a bad seat in the Venchi stores, even when you are standing in line. The gleaming window displays drip with golden store accents, there’s a sumptuous visual rainbow of gelato colors and the flavors are impossible to resist like the smells of rich, thick chocolate that fill the air with enchanted dreams.
Rome’s gelato delight for me was the espresso flavor.. Thank you Silviano Venchi for opening the first Venchi chocolate shop in Turin, Italy in 1878, and having the foresight to add gelato to your menu in 2006. I love the all natural ingredients and fighting my way through colossal flavors.
The gelato in Florence was mysterious and unexpected. As a city of wealth, built by bankers and merchants, the gelato feels more boutique-like and velvety than the firmer gelato in Venchi. The glass-domed counters are much simpler, with gelatarias offering fewer flavors in colors that seem softer and stacked in smaller quantities. A local guide told us the most authentic, high quality gelato is not piled high and often kept in the back of the store to optimize its freshness.
Like the moneylenders who financed masterful Florentine art produced by giants like Botticelli and Michelangelo, and the secret or hidden alleyways in the Uffizi Gallery or the Ponte Vecchio, the gelato experience in Florence is about design and craftsmanship. The best gelatarias are hidden in side streets away from the touristy sites, like the Arte del Gelato.
I dined on dolceamaro and cream caramel, both from the same gelateria when I toured the lush Boboli gardens behind the Pitti Palace (pictured above). I enjoyed one scoop before the tour, and another after the tour to cool off from the heat. Each time, the purity of the gelato texture brought me to my knees, and I swear I would have given my soul to the Medici family just to see the excitement of Queen Catherine when Buontalenti introduced this cold treasure.
Leaving this central city in the Tuscan region, we made two brief visits to Siena and San Gimignano. With only a few hours to discover the best gelato in each city, I was forced again to double my daily intake. Povero me! Our minivan rolled through the verdant countryside and past the tall cypress trees, arriving in the medieval city of Siena. I had two hours to find a gelateria while taking in Siena’s famous sites. My quest became a spectacle not unlike the Palio de Siena, the oldest horse race in the world dating back to the 12th century.
As I navigated the challenging inclines of the mind-boggling, gridless, narrow streets, I was tempted to climb Siena’s Duomo for a better vantage point. When our tour culminated in Il Campo, the city hall (not the church) area which forms the center of the town for the horse race, I found my gelato and lost my faith in Siena. While I loved the spectacular town and enjoyed the savory tiramisu flavor scoop, the gelato was less flavorful and lacked the artisanal quality I had come to expect in Florence.
What Siena lacked, San Gimignano delivered! The gelato in this relatively small, walled town southwest of Florence was spectacular. Just steps from the triangular central square of the Piazza della Cisterna, is a quaint shop with a big sign that reads, “Selected best gelato in Tuscany.” The Gelateria Dondoli was one of several gelaterias in this small, picturesque town, but it had a line of people waiting to order. I savored a cup of swirling purple and white frothy flavored lychee rose and my husband devoured the soft pink of fragola strawberry.
The last stop was Venice, a floating city on the water and what I’ve come to call the Las Vegas of Italy. Once a Republic, Venice’s history is all about the show. The city center is St. Mark’s Square and golden details from the Doge Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica (pictured above, next to the famous gondolas) glitter brightly under the Italian sun. The Grand Canal is the showstopper with gondola rides that weave through romantic waterways. But watch out – the city is slick with shoppers and tourista traps.
I suppose any gelato is always good gelato, but my plain vaniglia (vanilla) scoop and the lemone (lemon) flavored gelato from St. Mark’s Square area were average compared at this point in my gelato journey. There seemed to be fewer gelatarias in Venice but after a scrumptious late lunch at Restaurant Riviera, we discovered some tasty scoops of cioccomenta (choco chips in mint) at Osteria Al Squero. The gelateria was a local and added a Vivaldi-type skip to my stride.
The joys of gelato helped me to discover the beauty of Italy and to see the unique flavors of its people. Italians are friendly and inviting, with a penchant for life. I’ll cherish their example and continue to chase silky, smooth gelato – inspired by the happiness and adventure it brings as I live each day better, one flavor at a time.